We all have a Narcissistic Nelly in our lives. Don’t think so? Nelly was the kid on the playground who hurled insults at Bob and Sue until one of them decided they’d had enough and tripped her while she was running. Of course, when the teacher came by to see what the commotion was about, Nelly didn’t mention the part about her being a bully- only that Bob and Sue were ganging up on her for no reason at all. You better believe if you didn’t have a Narcissistic Nelly at recess, you’ve encountered her as an adult. And they’re absolute professionals at dodging the blame for their own actions while making their victims actually seem like villains.
But First, What’s a Narcissist?
Dr. Susan Heitler lists 6 characteristics that define narcissism: (1)
- Unilateral listening: Narcissists don’t know the meaning of two-way communication. Every conversation you have with them leaves you being interrupted, dismissed, and negated.
- Self-centeredness: Narcissists don’t really notice other people in the room, except as seeing them as potential audiences. Their interests are exclusively about their needs and desires.
- Rule-breakers: Narcissists don’t see themselves as part of a bigger community, so they don’t care about breaking the rules if it benefits them. From cheating on taxes to cutting in front of people in traffic, they simple don’t care about society standards.
- Defensiveness: Narcissists hate being criticized. They’re actually quite vulnerable people, and they’re unable to acknowledge their own flaws. They will lash out at anyone who points out (or who they simply think is hinting at) a character flaw.
- Blaming: You know it takes two to tango, but narcissists don’t. When relationships break down (and they always do for narcissists), it’s never their own fault.
- Short fuses: Narcissists can be very angry people, but because their so good at blaming others, they’re never able to learn how to manage their own emotions or responses. If they’re ticked off, it’s because of something someone else did wrong.
How Do Narcissists Make Their Victims the Villains?
Psychological consultant and certified life coach, Darius Cikanavicius specializes in relationships with narcissists. He notes that they’re experts at projection, which is the central technique they use for keeping everything all about them while avoiding all blame.
Cikanavicius explains that when a narcissist is confronted with their toxic behavior against another person, they tend to react in one of a few ways. (2)
First, is denial. Most narcissists are actually not self-aware. They’ve developed impressive mechanisms to change their perception of reality to fit their personal perspective, even when they don’t realize they’re doing it. Tell a narcissist that you refuse to accept their toxic behaviors and they might simply deny that any of it ever happened at all.
Second, is lying. When a narcissist realizes that they’ve really been caught in their ways, they can invent convincing “explanations” and backstories to explain away their actions and paint themselves in a much more positive light. More often than not, they’ll take what’s actually true and twist it just a little bit to suit their perspective. You might not even realize it’s a lie unless you’re paying close attention.
Third, is the principle of projection. Narcissists tend to assume that other people are as toxic as they are, so if they’re doing something harmful, it’s “obvious” that their victim would do the same in their shoes. They tend to project their own failures onto their victims, especially. If they’re cheating in a relationship, they accuse their partner of cheating. If they’re lying, they accuse their victim of lying.
Think of Bob and Sue. When Nelly accuses them of being bullies, they’re so genuinely shocked that they can’t think of anything to say to explain to the teacher what actually happened. They end up serving detention for something they know they don’t deserve. Narcissists frame their stories strategically to make their victims’ natural response to toxic behavior seem unwarranted and out of the blue. Watch out for people who get angry when you refuse to let them treat you in toxic or abusive ways.
Finally, narcissists can often use gossip as the final nail in the coffin for their victims. They won’t hesitate to spread their version of “the truth” to people in your circle and slander your character. They’ll appeal to people with half-truths to empathize with their part of the story, and they’ll keep doing it until you don’t have any allies left. It can be completely disorienting and scary. Often, the narcissist will then “forgive” you and try to play the role of your true friend. Don’t buy it for a second.
So what happens if a narcissist stumbles across an article like this one? Well, according to Cikanavicius, not much changes.
“They may read an article or watch a video on narcissism and think that it’s about everyone else in their life and not them. Meanwhile in reality, it’s more likely than not that the information describes them and not others in their life, unless they surround themselves with other narcissistic people, too.” (3)
Keep Reading: Why Toxic People Will Never Admit They’re Wrong
- “Are You a Narcissist? 6 Sure Signs of Narcissism.” Psychology Today. Susan Heitler Ph.D.. October 25, 2012.
- “How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story.” Psych Central. Darius Cikanavicius. July 30, 2018.
- “How Narcissists React to Information About Narcissism.” Psych Central. Darius Cikanavicius. November 11, 2018